How might the Russia-Ukraine war lead to conflict in the Middle East? - analysis

War is happening right now in Europe, but every actor in the area can cause a butterfly-effect scenario for Israel and its neighbors.

 A view shows a residential building destroyed by recent shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in the city of Irpin in the Kyiv region, Ukraine March 2, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/SERHII NUZHNENKO)
A view shows a residential building destroyed by recent shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in the city of Irpin in the Kyiv region, Ukraine March 2, 2022.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put in motion important global shifts whose unintended consequences we could witness in the coming months and years.

As with the COVID-19 pandemic and the China-US tensions, the actual result of a crisis is not always apparent. One result of the Ukraine war could be another war in the Middle East. That means it is important to prepare now, even as others are focused on Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine is now reaching massive proportions. With millions fleeing fighting and major cities under siege, the war is becoming an enormous tragedy for Ukraine’s 40 million people. Russia is only beginning to unlimber its military power.

Having failed in its initial objectives, Russia is now assembling large forces to push into Kyiv and cement control over areas it has taken in the south and east of the country. Meanwhile, Western countries are coming down hard on Russia in international forums and promising to deliver some military support to Ukraine in the form of defensive weapons.

The effects of this war could lead to increased tensions in the Middle East. This is because various countries and groups could take advantage of the conflict in Ukraine to launch their own invasions and initiatives. Israel is especially vulnerable to this escalation.

  Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the graduation ceremony of an officer training base. (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the graduation ceremony of an officer training base. (credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

We saw how quickly things can spiral out of control last May when tensions over some houses in Sheikh Jarrah became the flashpoint for a war in Gaza. This is not because the tensions in Sheikh Jarrah were actually the reason for the war. Rather, Hamas wanted an excuse and likely planned with Iran to launch the conflict.

There are five possible main scenarios that a wider conflict may develop in the Middle East following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

One way that the conflict could lead to escalation in the region is via the Iran deal talks. Russia is playing a key role in the talks, and it may want to punish the West for its reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. In order to distract the West, Russia could empower Iran to move toward more enrichment and get closer to a nuclear device. This would create a crisis and could lead to escalation between Israel and Iran.

The visit of US CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie on Thursday shows how Israel works closely with the US. But Israel is also very concerned about the nuclear program and various redlines linked to it. Russia might play the Iran card if it feels the Ukraine war is leading to isolation for Moscow.

The war in Ukraine could also cause Iran to believe that any country can now invade another country without too many ramifications. With the world distracted, Iran might decide it is time to launch a larger regional conflict. This could begin with Iran trying to create a crisis in Bahrain. Bahrain is where the US Fifth Fleet is based and where Israel now has a liaison with US NAVCENT, the naval part of Central Command.

Second, Iran may decide to heat up tensions with Bahrain because it is a country that Tehran has not tried to provoke so far. Iran has used the Houthis in Yemen to attack the United Arab Emirates and has used Iraqi-based militias to attack the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Iran also attacked Saudi Arabia in 2019.

Iran possibly could also try direct escalation with the US or other navies in the Persian Gulf. Escalation in the Gulf might happen if an Iran deal doesn’t come together, and Tehran wants to test the US or threaten it into coming back to the table for talks. It might also move against US forces in the Tanf garrison in Syria or against US forces in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. Those are Iran’s goals in its near abroad, the areas in its sphere of influence.

A third type of conflict could involve some kind of offensive or change in Syria. The US might choose to draw down forces in Syria if it feels it needs to commit more to NATO and as China tensions rise. This means the US might choose to wrap up operations in eastern Syria or al-Tanf.

Turkey might also choose to attack the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey has been walking a fine line on Ukraine, supplying Kyiv with drones while buying the S-400s from Russia. Turkey might tell Russia it will trade support for Russia for gains in Syria, or it might tell the US it needs to invade more Kurdish areas in Syria in exchange for support of NATO policy.

In both instances, Turkey can blackmail the US and Russia in Syria. Turkey already invaded Syria in 2018 and 2019 and ethnically cleansed Kurds. It might even move further and launch an operation into Iraq’s Sinjar and Makhmour areas, where Yazidis and Kurds live. Turkey often bombs these areas.

Fourth, a direct war between Hezbollah and Israel might result from the Ukraine war. Hezbollah is watching Lebanon collapse financially and economically. According to rumors, Lebanon now needs more wheat due to the Ukraine crisis. Lebanon already has an energy crisis.

Hezbollah recently tested Israel by flying a drone across the border. Hezbollah might now decide this is the time to escalate on the Golan Heights or Lebanon border. It might work for Iran to plan an escalation that includes Hamas, the Houthis and Iraqi and Syrian militias. This could involve drone threats and ballistic missiles.

Israel has often said it opposes Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Israel also must weigh relations with Russia regarding the need to carry out operations in Syria. A crisis could result in Syria if Russia decides to try to distract from Ukraine by heating up tensions with the US and Israel in Syria.

The US backs Israel’s “campaign between the wars” in Syria. McKenzie’s visit to Israel is important in terms of Israel-US cooperation and how Israel is cementing its role within Central Command’s area of operations. However, that also means Syria is an important area for discussion. It is entirely plausible that Russia could decide it is time to heat things up in Syria to distract from the isolation it is facing diplomatically in Ukraine.

These are the five main ways that a conflict may develop in the region as an unintended consequence of the Russian invasion. Israel and its partners and allies must weigh carefully the potential for escalation when the world is looking at Eastern Europe and less focused on the Middle East.